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Have Stream, Will Travel
Review by: Greg Boettcher
Game: Moments out of Time
By: L. Ross Raszewski

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Game file
Info at Baf's guide

SPAG Review
Author's Website
[Ed note: Normally I don't publish reviews of games entered in the annual competition, but Greg also reviewed "MooT2" and "MooT:RV" [2] to be published here Real Soon Now, and I felt it appropriate to publish the MootT1 review as well.]

Surface features

Moments out of Time (hereafter MOOT 1) came within a hair's breath of taking first place out of 51 games in IF Comp 2001. Looking over some old reviews of the game, I see that opinions were mixed, but many people loved it. In fact, more voters gave the game a 10 than they gave it any other score. (And in case it's of any interest, only one other game in IF Comp history has ever done that.[1])

The first thing thing that struck me about MOOT 1 was its meticulously designed interface. The game has an extensive interactive menu at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to choose common commands, see room items, or — my favorite — list room exits. Though I didn't use the interactive menu much, I was impressed by this seemingly unique game feature.

The game is also striking as an Inform Z-code game that includes music. And from what I heard of the music, I liked it; it sets the right mood without being distracting. Unfortunately, at least for me under Windows Frotz, the music played just once and then stopped. For that matter, a lot of Z-code interpreters probably won't even attempt the music. But that's okay; the music is strictly optional.

Premise and gameplay

What struck me about MOOT 1 was its basic premise: you're a "StreamDiver," a professional time traveler of the mid-23rd century. You work for an organization called the Temporal Sciences Commission, which controls time travel technology, using it to gain knowledge about the past, while being careful not to corrupt history. Your mission is to go back to the mid-21st century, to an abandoned house about to be destroyed during a nuclear attack. You must at all costs avoid contact with people, while learning as much as you can about the place. To assist you, you have an array of useful gadgets, although, for security reasons, you can only take so many of them with you. After you're done, you'll go back to the 23rd century, where you'll be debriefed and evaluated on what you learned.

This is a great premise on a number of levels, laying a solid foundation for rewarding gameplay. First off, as a "StreamDiver," your whole job is exploration — a task every IF player enjoys, especially in this case, where there are so many secrets, and it is so difficult to uncover them all.

Secondly, I found the whole "avoid human contact" thing a good move. By setting up a scenario where talking to someone means failing your mission, Raszewski lets himself off the hook for doing a lot of conversation programming. That's a good thing, because conversation programming takes a lot of work. Doing it well can bog down a programmer's workload, while doing it badly can seriously spoil a player's immersion. Raszewski avoids that dilemma; thus, he can focus all his energy on what your character can explore, and he generally does it quite well.

Thirdly I loved the gadgets, including the various console chips. You'll want to read up about them in the StreamDiver manual (type PUSH BUTTON in the first room) to decide what to take, but you'll learn more just by practicing them all during various playthroughs. Some pieces of equipment don't sound that exciting, but prove in practice to be extremely useful. Others have limited usefulness, but do one or two things that would otherwise be impossible.

A fourth aspect of the game is more questionable: you can't just take all your gadgets; in fact, you can only take less than half. (Purportedly, this is for security reasons, "to limit the danger of temporal corruption," although, frankly, that doesn't make sense to me; if you can't trust an agent to be careful with all his items, you can't trust the agent at all). The question here is, does this restriction help or hurt gameplay? And this is where people would disagree. The thing is, you have no way of knowing beforehand which items are most useful in the past; all you can do is go back and find out. And since you can't go back more than once during a playthrough, it's not likely you'll reach a good ending the first time you play. You could say that's a bad thing, but by the same token it gives the game a lot of replay value. I'll discuss this more below.

I also found a fifth thing intriguing: when you're done exploring the house, you can go back to the 23rd century, where your superior officer debriefs you and evaluates you based on what you learned. This is a striking game feature. It gives urgency to your efforts while you're exploring, and afterwards, I found that my score was usually a good reflection of my performance. Also, this is the only part of the game with conversation, and the conversation is interesting as well. It mainly takes the form of interrogator-style questions, as in Spider and Web, plus a pleasurable chance to give free-form, one-word answers, as in Tapestry.

Strengths and weaknesses

I generally liked the game's writing (notwithstanding the PC's occasional habit of using long words for no reason). I especially liked the sharp contrast between the various voices in the game, including the narrator's voice, the official manual and mission description, two very different diaries, several letters, and any number of e-mail messages. The narrative voices of these documents are as different as you'd expect, and in most cases I found it rewarding to read them.

MOOT 1 is well programmed, but it also has a few rough edges. Occasionally, items in room descriptions aren't implemented — a disappointing weakness, as one expects more attention to detail in a game with so few rooms. I found it likewise annoying when too few verbs were implemented; there were a few minor guess-the-verb moments, though nothing that presented a serious obstacle. A few spacing problems were also annoying.

A more serious flaw, the one that hurt gameplay the most, is in the interrogation segment at the end, where you must answer questions with the right answer, and not enough keyword synonyms are accepted. Although I was always able to guess the right keyword, I sometimes had difficulty with this, and I read reviews by people who had more trouble than I did.

Somehow, during the course of five years, the author never re-released a version of the game that fixes the biggest bug, during the response to TURN ON PORTABLE COMPUTER. Although the author has re-released the game as a .zblorb, the new version is still labeled "Release 1," and it did not seem to fix any bugs; apparently, its main purpose was to add Treaty of Babel compliance, plus a new title graphic.

So yes, the game has flaws, but not a huge number. Overall, the game is well done, though it's too bad there was never a post-comp bug-fix release.

Replay value

If you're going to play MOOT 1, you should be prepared to play it more than once. The first time you play, you have only a vague idea of what you're trying to learn; you don't know how to decide which tools to take; you don't know what questions they'll ask during your debriefing; and you won't yet have learned about a couple of events that call for some planning.

In other words, it's "learn by failure," as in Varicella. Only here it isn't "learn by failure so you can overcome seemingly insuperable political obstacles," but — well, what exactly is the goal of MOOT 1?

One of your goals, I suppose, is to get a high score on your evaluation at the end of the game. And if you asked the PC about his motives, he say that's his main goal. From the player's point of view, though, replaying the game wouldn't be much fun if boosting your score were the only objective. In my case, what drove me to play the game again and again was the challenge of piecing together the game's fragmentary story, using multiple sets of tools during multiple playthroughs, until, gradually, the bits of the story began to come together.

What's especially compelling, though, is that these two goals are synergistic. Whether you're playing to gain knowledge or just to get a high score, you'll surely end up getting both. This makes the game all the more rewarding. For this and other reasons, if you're looking for a game with a lot of replay value, this is it.


Footnotes

[1] The other game was Slouching Towards Bedlam. This is based on available IF Comp statistics, 1999 to 2006.

[2] "Renegade Version" not "Recreational Vehicle", I'm afraid.

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